TAKING A STAND
When Australian track star Peter Norman supported his fellow medallists’ decision to give the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, he threw himself into the middle of a political firestorm - and as a new book reveals, became a pariah back home
own in the locker room after the 200 metre race at the 1968 Summer Olympics, the three medallists were left alone, away from the din of 50,000 fans gathered at Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman and American bronze medallist John Carlos had engaged in some angry sledging for weeks, but the race was now over. Norman extended his hand to Carlos, who looked him in the eye, smiled and then shook it. “The most important thing I did that day was shake John’s hand after the race,” Norman said. “That made me part of what he and [gold medallist] Tommie [Smith] were going to do. They knew they could trust me.”
While the image and moment has not dulled with time, the stories and circumstances of what happened next certainly have. The symbolism of the props used isn’t in dispute. The black gloves on Smith’s and Carlos’s fists represented unity and strength. The beads around Carlos’s neck signified the countless lynchings of African–american people over the course of the United States’ troubled history. The absence of running shoes, with black socks worn instead, was a nod to the poverty that had kept them downtrodden for generations, whether they were working in the cotton fields of Alabama or stealing food off freight trains to give to the poor in Harlem.
“We are in the Olympic Project for Human Rights,” Carlos said. “Do you believe in human rights?” Norman smiled. He told him about his background, about the way his parents had been embedded in the Salvation Army and taught him to consider every person equally. “Of course I believe in human rights,” he told them. Norman was the first Australian men’s sprinter to reach the final of the 200 metres, and when he finished second to Smith, he said, “Forget about the fastest white man in the world. They don’t have age divisions or colour divisions in the top echelons of sport. You either are, or you are not, the fastest.”
The colour of Norman’s skin didn’t matter in this context, but Carlos later said he thought the actions of one white man that night meant everything. “For Peter to say, ‘Hey man. I respect you. I respect the human race. Let me wear that button.’ This was about our plight in the US. Here’s a guy from the other side of the world who believed in the human race, he believed in humanity, he believed in God. I would die for him.”
Norman knew the gravity of what was about to come. The racial divide in America was impossible to ignore at that moment in history, whether it was in the newspaper or on the television news.
As all three men walked towards the dais, the crowd got a glimpse of Smith and Carlos, both shoeless and each holding a Puma running shoe. But nobody jeered or booed. Nobody knew what was about to come.
After the trio received their medals and faced the American and Australian flags, ‘The Star-spangled Banner’ started to play. The whole stadium fell silent. Tommie Smith and John Carlos had raised their fists in the air and bowed their heads. “Tommie and John were behind me, so I couldn’t see what was happening,” Norman said. “But I knew they’d actually gone through with it when the voice from the stands faded into nothing.”
In his 22 years as the quick-fingered photographer for Life magazine, John Dominis never missed the shot. He saw gold medallist Tommie Smith with head bowed and raised right fist in the air, wearing a black glove; bronze medallist John Carlos with left fist in the air, also wearing a black glove, with his USA
tracksuit opened and beads around his neck; and at the front stood Peter Norman in the green and gold-striped tracksuit of Australia, looking gunbarrel straight ahead. Each of them had an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge pinned to their chest. Smith and Carlos both had their running shoes off, wearing black socks.
Dominis fired off the shot. Many years later, it was named in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential Images of All Time. The silence that hushed over the crowd in the Olympic Stadium dragged on. When the anthem was over, the three men trudged off and walked towards the tunnel of the stadium. That’s when the boos, jeers and racist sledges began. The few Australian fans in the crowd kept applauding Norman as he left the track.
Norman was stunned by the reaction of the US press. “They weren’t denigrating the flag,” he said.“they weren’t denigrating the anthem being played.they weren’t there to proclaim black supremacy. They were there to proclaim black equality… I had a lot of detractors when I came home. There were quite a few in athletic circles who thought I’d done the wrong thing. But I was never really threatened in any way.” Asked if he would do it again, he replied: “Yes. In a flash.”
Raelene Boyle wasn’t in the stadium during the medal presentation; she was warming up outside. “Peter Norman went over there a relative unknown, split Carlos and Smith, and became very much a well-known figure. His run in the 200 metres was extraordinary but unfortunately his performance on the track was overshadowed by standing on the dais with Smith and Carlos and having a badge on a tracksuit. We forget when we think about Peter he was actually a great sprinter.”
When he finally arrived home from the Olympics, his wife, Ruth, found a changed man. “Standing on the dais, the black power salute from the two gentlemen on that stand, had an impact on Peter. He came home and he was a different person. Our lives weren’t our own anymore. He had become everyone else’s person.” This is an edited extract from The Peter Norman Story by Andrew Webster and Matt Norman (Macmillan Australia, $34.99) out on Tuesday.